The Landscape Within and Without: Similarities between landscape photography and fractals

Using his extensive experience with both landscape photography and fractal image creation, Wayne examines the parallels and draws some interesting conclusions.
For over 35 years I have taken landscape photographs. For over 20 years I have explored fractal landscapes. Whilst on the surface they appear to be so totally different, I do not believe this to be the case.

Photography by Wayne J. Cosshall

Landscape photography is a long, well established part of the photographic tradition. It involves the exploration of the physical world with camera in hand and mind, looking either for the interesting, unusual, beautiful or strange and the photographing of it, or the finding of something that can be turned into one of these using in-camera and/or post production techniques. The landscape exists outside of the photograph, and offers the possibility of many photographers shooting the same scene. All these images will differ to a greater or lesser degree, due to the huge number of variables that exist both in the natural world, sun position, air clarity, season, etc, and the huge number of variables inherent to the photographic process. So a photographer finds a location in the physical world, makes photographic decisions of things like field of view, depth of field, focus point, shutter speed, filters, etc, and creates an image that is their interpretation of what they have found.

Fractal image making involves using a mathematical equation that may also include parameters than can be varied to change the results, and an algorithm that is used to iterate the equation and, in the process, create an image. Whilst the images can look like a landscape sometimes, this is not essential. However, fractal practitioners often talk of a mathematical landscape that they explore. Certainly these equations and algorithms have a universal reality. Providing you work with the same equation and parameters, you will get the same output, if the algorithm you use is effectively the same. Fractal artists cover a wide range from those who write their own program code to those who use other people’s code, whether commercial, shareware or free. Some will explore at random until they find something that appeals, others with methodically explore as parameters are varied and others can previsualize the result of the equation and parameters. The image is rendered and this may or may not be post processed in some way.

Fractal by Wayne J. Cosshall

From the above brief introductions to the two fields you can see that both have a core thing in common, the ‘landscape’ has an objective reality, which means that a number of people can image the ‘landscape’ and at least the potential exists for them to create identical images, even if the actual likelihood of an identical result is low. Dig deeper and there is more in common. In both cases we harvest the ‘landscape’, looking for something about the scene that we like, respond to or can work with. Another parallel is that at the ‘capture’ stage we have many options to create a personalized interpretation. Lastly we can leave the resulting image as is, do minimal modifications or we can extensively rework the result, perhaps combining it with other images. Possibly it is because of these parallels that I am drawn to both.

In his first paper on the subject, Mandelbrot made much of the fractal nature of the landscape. In my recent explorations of macro photography of rocks and crystals there have been any moments when I have been struck by the landscape look of what I was seeing, greatly magnified, in the viewfinder.

Art by Wayne J. Cosshall

Now where does this realization lead us? Well, it suggests to me that approaches that work in one may, when suitably translated, work in the other. That this may also hold for theoretical frameworks and art theories is another intriguing possibility. It also, for me, has a nice symmetry. Many books on fractals start out with describing how fractal geometries crop up in the real world, from coastlines to mountain ranges. Isn’t it appealing to realize that perhaps when we do landscape photography that we are doing fractal imaging? I know I am intrigued.

More on this later.

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